“I’ve just given up. The pressure is too much. I need to feel numb in order to block the pain.” The haunting silence was suffocating as the air escaped the classroom.
Ever wonder what’s on the mind of a seventeen-year-old high school student? Ask one. Then listen. If enough trust has been established within a classroom community, juniors will share. But be warned. Prepare for a dose of reality the adult world tends to overlook or ignore.
Arguably the most significant question I have ever asked a class was a simple, spontaneous journal prompt earlier this year: What are the top ten sources of stress in your life?
The common responses included: grades, constant homework, high school drama, the upcoming ACT test, expectations of AP courses, prom, need money, pressure from parents, job responsibilities, time management, friends, stereotypes, college searching, being judged, extra-curricular activities, and lack of time. There is not enough time to balance everything—including sleep.
Third quarter is ideal for this conversation. The class has likely conquered the challenges of first semester and everyone’s voice has emerged. This is when I facilitate a thematic unit focused on “the quest for personal fulfillment,” which promotes highly reflective thought in World Literature and Composition. We begin the unit with a study and analysis of our individual learning styles—particularly, how our learning styles impact our educational experience.
The literary study opens with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” one of my favorite literary pieces (thus the reference to Form of the Good, the title of my blog site). As we read and share insights about the dialogue, I urge students to release any preconceived notions about their mindset and approach learning from a new perspective for a glimpse of enlightenment. The guiding questions include: “What are some ‘caves’ in your life in which you might be or feel ‘imprisoned?’ How might you be liberated from the restrictive limits of the cave?”
How can we expect students to invest in our class for 50 minutes before a bell signals another mindless transition in their day—a day in which they must also face the stress of a job, expectations of parents, social pressure from peers, and the workload of each class, including advanced placement courses? Add the anxiety of time restraints, lack of sleep, and grades, and the picture becomes clearer. Adolescents are caught in a race to adulthood, where external forces rush their emotional maturity, but offer little choice in the process.
We might complain about students’ apathy and their lack of engagement (How can they not care about anything?), but it is not to be taken personally (they assure me). My students recognize the efforts of their teachers—passionate educators—and the attempts to create exciting lessons and fun class activities.
Classroom learning is simply not a priority in their busy day. According to my juniors:
We have experienced years of seeing no success, no reward for our efforts, and are not held accountable—especially on standardized tests. Why even try? In class, we are commanded to be quiet and learn. Then told to talk to others and learn. [The voice of teachers] loses effect over time. We need down time that is not dictated…and not be preached at by hypocritical adults. So, it is just easier to go through the motions with a sense of numb…it’s easier when I feel numb.
Powerful words. They trusted I would listen and I did. The next day, I greeted class with this prompt.
Genius hour was officially launched in Room A15.
I have since monitored progress and collected feedback from students. I will post student projects and the positive response to genius hour soon.